021511 Walt Disney World: Animal Kingdom, Orlando, FL

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February 15th, 2011 was my first time visiting Disney World since my one and only family vacation in 1975.  I was much less excited about the visit this time around, having accumulated almost forty years of cynical buildup on my psyche.  Aside from the standard Liberal knee-jerk reaction against any corporation that gets too big and successful there were all those weird little things I had heard about Disney, like how they did research to determine how long it took people to consume their concessions and they placed trash bins accordingly, and how all their employees from the top execs down to the janitors are considered “performers” so the company can insist on terms that a regular employer couldn’t, for example men weren’t allowed to sport moustaches or long hair.

We had woken up in one of Disney’s official hotels, and while the Rock n’ Roll hotel was among the cheapest onsite options it was still pretty good, with a large, guitar-shaped pool, good old-timey rock music coming out of speakers everywhere, and subtle three-ringed Mickey emblems all over the place.  Staying onsite makes getting to the parks pretty simple, the free busses just seem to pull up out of nowhere whenever you need them and bee-line you wherever you’re going.

As m’lady and I were getting on the bus that morning there was one other family getting on as well, mom, dad, and two young boys, both clearly disabled and barely walking despite their intricate leg braces.  Watching those two kids struggle up the stairs and onto the bus without asking anyone for help (much less their parents, who obviously were fostering self-sufficiency), both with big smiles of Disney excitement shining through their obvious exertion was one of the most inspirational things I had ever seen.  These kids had everything to complain about and to blame the world for, they had every reason to expect help at every turn and yet they were happy as two little clams – and about as mobile – and they didn’t seem to care one bit.

Anyway, in no time at all we arrived at Animal Kingdom, where we had arranged to meet m’lady’s family for a day of park amusement.  As we neared the front of the line to enter I bristled.  M’lady grabbed my arm and urged me to just grin and bear it as we were both fingerprinted via a scanner as a condition of entry.  For the sake of m’lady, her family, and my own sanity I bit my tongue and said nothing as I donated my personal and unique thumbprint to one of the most conspiracy theory-plagued corporations on the planet, a blank smile pasted on my face.  Oh the cynicism I held back!

We had not gone a hundred feet into the park when I could hold back no longer.  And just as I was about to burst forth with a tirade against the obviously unnecessary intrusion of requiring a fingerprint to enter an amusement park I saw the oddest, most curious thing.

“Is that a real live giant anteater?” I muttered, pointing and staring in disbelief.

And it was: a giant aardvark, not part of any ‘ride’ or ‘exhibit’ that I could see, and not even in any sort of discernible cage, but unquestionably before my eyes was an astounding critter that had never been before my eyes before.  

“Cool…” I gasped, just as m’lady’s family came into sight.

And from that point my cynicism didn’t have a chance.  The rest of the day was a breathless whirlwind hosted by m’lady’s two niblings, both lifetime veterans of all things Disney.  They showed us our way around the FastPass, which gives you a set time to ride a ride and allows you to bypass the huge lines of proles who don’t use it.  The FastPass is available for free to everyone, and why so few people seem to utilise it is beyond me.  

Our little Disney pros had a system whereby you would get a second FastPass for a ride as you were getting on it the first time, that way if you liked the ride you could do it twice in a row as your second FastPass would invariably be valid by the time you finished the ride the first time.  This worked especially well for the Safari ride, which featured different animals every time you got on it.

As someone who has done my fair share of actual safaris in Africa I can report that the Disney Safari is pretty cool.  It packs into fifteen minutes what you would hope to see in a few days in the real world, and all of it done without any cages or barriers to be seen.  The park allows the animals to wander freely which gives the ride unpredictability as well as a few ecological brownie-points.  Overall it was pretty cool.

The nature walk was one of my favourite bits, with actual gorillas right there!  I know they use sneaky ditches and stuff to keep the critters from the humans, but they do it so well you’d swear there was nothing keeping the beasts from the children.  There were also a bunch of huge vampire bats on that ‘ride’ that I will never forget, they were an awesome, once-in-a-lifetime sight.

A less awesome sight was how many grossly overweight people I saw riding little carts that allowed them and their families direct and unfettered access to everything via the handicap lanes.  Now, I don’t know everyone’s situation by any stretch but it’s hard not to think that many of these people simply ate themselves into paralyzing obesity and voluntarily put themselves into a position where the world has to afford them extra concessions.  It’s a difficult thing to stomach, especially with those kids I saw getting on the bus earlier in the day in mind.  I know if they could have cured themselves through something as controllable as their own diet, well those two little troupers would easily have cured themselves by now.

(Clearly my surprisingly positive view of the Disney experience was forcing my cynicism to find an alternative target!)

So after a day full of unbelievable animal experiences and some crazy, crazy rides including a very jarring roller coaster called Everest that I really shouldn’t have gone on twice in a row I walked out of the ultimate Mickey Mouse Club with a distinctly less harsh attitude towards the gigantic corporation than when I walked in.  I even saw several male employees with both long hair and moustaches, and it’s hard to be upset just because I found a garbage can right next to me every single time I needed one, debunking one myth and (slightly) rejoicing in the other.

Bottom line is: I’d do Disney again.

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